Food Service & Agriculture, Manufacturing, and Retail

Distillers making name for themselves in Beer City

Beer still dominates the beverage scene, but industry execs taking notice of GR’s cocktail culture.

December 28, 2018
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Amaro Pazzo, a collaboration with Grand Rapids-based Madcap Coffee, is Long Road Distillers’ take on a traditional Italian coffee liqueur. Courtesy Long Road Distillers 

Even though Grand Rapids is unquestionably Beer City, USA, the emerging craft spirits industry in town has had a productive 2018, and local distillers plan to hit the ground running in 2019.

Long Road Distillers made the move to Imperial Beverage in late April, and as 2018 comes to a close, the partnership has opened up new markets in the state of Michigan and increased the distillery’s number of accounts by at least 20 percent, said co-owner Kyle Van Strien.

Van Strien said Long Road still has a number of new opportunities in 2019. Because the distillery came on late with Imperial, it didn’t hit a lot of the core markets it was aiming for in 2018.

“We missed our summer opportunity with them to hit some of the lakeshore and heavy tourist markets, where (in 2019), I think having a better plan and hitting the ground earlier in the spring will help us to grow our presence better in those markets,” he said.

The move to Boyne City has been the other highlight of Long Road’s 2018. Although the company’s first satellite location is limited on offerings and real estate, Long Road was quick to plant its stakes up north.

The announcement for Long Road Boyne City was made late in October, and the tasting room opened the day after Thanksgiving. Since opening, it has seen notable success with local fans, Van Strien said.

“I’m really excited to see what ski season will do up there,” he said. “It’s just a nice three-and-a-half season market for us.”

Long Road has deep northern Michigan roots, primarily because of its MICHIGIN — gin made entirely with Michigan ingredients — and Van Strien predicted the move to Boyne City will help solidify Long Road’s presence.

The company does not plan to establish a second standalone location for some time. Jon O’Connor, co-owner of Long Road, said Boyne City is something of a “test market” to determine how the company can succeed and identify opportunities outside of Grand Rapids.

Van Strien also brought up an important package of beverage bills recently signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder. The new beverage laws, which clear up a number of gray areas in the state’s Liquor Control Code, contained a revised section on tasting room operations, which will be beneficial to Long Road in the future.

Previously, Michigan law stated off-site tasting rooms that don’t have production attached to them can only serve samples and sell bottles and other merchandise to go. The new legislation clarifies a small distiller may have up to five tasting rooms, without production attached, where on-site consumption of alcohol, like cocktails, may be sold.

“I think that opens up some opportunities for us,” Van Strien said. “It’s not that we want to create cocktail bars all over the place … but it does allow us to at least serve samples of cocktails that people could potentially make and drink at home.”

“I think that’s always been one of the challenges of a distillery tasting room,” O’Connor added. “When you go to a brewery or even a winery, you’re drinking the finished product.”

Most spirits fans — unlike Van Strien or O’Connor — don’t prefer to drink straight liquor, so it often takes creating something out of the base product, like a cocktail, to introduce it to new customers.

One of Long Road’s final releases of 2018 aims to reach a broader audience. Amaro Pazzo, a unique collaboration with Grand Rapids-based Madcap Coffee, is the distillery’s take on a traditional Italian coffee liqueur. The specialty spirit took over a year in planning and utilizes Madcap’s Reko Ethiopian coffee blend.

Van Strien said the product has the opportunity to put Long Road’s name into the national coffee market, and the distillery already has received calls from connoisseurs in major cities like New York City, San Francisco, Denver and Chicago.

“I think we have a real opportunity here to go with one or two or three of our products that have received a lot of international attention and potentially make an impact where we’re not going with the whole portfolio,” Van Strien said.

Gray Skies Distillery, a small outfit in the Monroe North Business District, also had a productive 2018 with the release of a new lineup of whiskeys. The 2-year-old distillery had been aging out its brown spirits — selling clear spirits like vodka and gin in the meantime — before its Straight Bourbon rolled out in limited quantities in March.

Steve Vander Pol, owner of Gray Skies, said come June 2019, the distillery will be able to offer its Straight Bourbon on store shelves year-round.

“It’s been more than just bourbon for us,” he said. “We did a straight rye whiskey just this fall, so moving forward, we just look forward to having growing stocks of aging spirits and having more aged whiskey for sale.”

Vander Pol said it’s a common trend in the craft spirits industry where a lot of distilleries have to source their aged spirits from large whiskey suppliers at the startup point because it’s too costly to sit on a batch of spirits and age them for up to two years, which is the minimum age time for a whiskey like Straight Bourbon.

“There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that as long as you’re upfront with the customers,” Vander Pol said. “There’s still a lot of craft that goes into sourcing and blending it, but I think it’s important to be up front with customers and say what was distilled on-site and what was brought in.”

As the craft distilling industry itself “ages and matures,” Vander Pol said he believes the trend will shift to more establishments aging their own whiskeys. Gray Skies, however, prides itself in never having to source a drop of whiskey.

“The first two years of our existence, we didn’t sell any bourbon, we didn’t sell any rye, so this was the first year we were able to sell our Straight Bourbon and Straight Rye Whiskey, and if you look at our bottles, it says, in the biggest font possible, ‘Michigan Straight Bourbon,’” he said.

Vander Pol said he’s looking forward to the point where both his and other craft distillers are able to independently produce year-round aged spirits.

While he’s uncertain whether craft spirits will rise to the same level as craft beer in Grand Rapids, he’s definitely noticed a heightened trajectory toward cocktail culture, similar to the Detroit area.

“There’s not as much of a cocktail culture in Grand Rapids yet, but we start to see it take off a little more,” Vander Pol said. “There are more cocktail bars in restaurants that have really great cocktail programs.”

While craft beer tends to corral its fans into clubs based on different brews — stouts, IPAs, sours, etc. — there isn’t quite as big a fan base for something like vodka or gin, which doesn’t tend to differ much from brand to brand and usually just ends up in a cocktail.

But Vander Pol added there are similar emerging fan bases among different types of whiskey, whether it be scotch, bourbon or rye.

“There’s kind of the thrill of trying a new bottle and seeing if you like the taste profile of it,” he said.

Gray Skies is looking to close out 2018 with about a 30 percent increase in sales.

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